Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The e-book version will be available Oct 1.
Please visit my website at www.lisbetheng.com for more info and to read an excerpt!
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Forgiveness. The theme of Andy Andrews’ difficult-to-categorize work, The Heart Mender, pervades the story of a German submariner and an American waitress set in World War II era Alabama. The back cover of the book defines it as “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”. These are genres I generally do not read, but when a friend alerted me to the recent publication of a book involving a romance between a German WWII sailor and an American woman, I was too intrigued to resist.
The book purports to be a true story and is divided into three sections. It begins as a contemporary, factual narrative. Mr. Andrews describes how, while digging up a tree stump in his own backyard on the Gulf coast of the southern US, he accidently unearths a rusty can containing a number of unusual artifacts. Through careful research, he is able to identify the anchor-embossed buttons, Iron Cross medal, and silver badge depicting an anchor curiously entwined with the initials “UB” (later identified as U-boat). Also included in the can are three old photographs – one of a sailor, another of a couple with a small child and the last a group of naval personnel and military officials, including Adolf Hitler, the only individual in any of the photos whom Mr. Andrews can identify.
The middle section of the book, by far the longest, reads like a novel and is set in 1942 Alabama. The main characters are Helen Mason, the embittered widow of an American Army Air Force officer, and Josef Bartels Landermann, the German U-boat officer whom Helen discovers near death, washed up on the beach near her cottage.
At times while reading The Heart Mender, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Though very much caught up in the story of Helen and Josef, I would occasionally glance at the back cover, wondering how this book fit into the category of “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”, which the publisher had placed it in. I primarily read straight fiction or non-fiction; this book read like a fusion of both, with something else, a genre I am not familiar with, mixed in. In a sense, the lack of a “Romance” designation enhanced my enjoyment; I didn’t know whether to expect a happy ending and that mystery propelled me to excitedly read on, as the characters I had come to care about faced wrenching and even life-threatening plot twists. Romance readers are guaranteed a happy ending, though death, destruction and despair often loom, apparently inescapably. One of the challenges for a romance novelist is to keep the reader wondering, if just for a moment, if she will get that happy ending she has been promised.
To sum up the thrust of Mr. Andrews’ book, I quote part of the back cover blurb: “The Heart Mender is a story of life, loss, and reconciliation, reminding us of the power of forgiveness and the universal healing experience of letting go.” Though primarily drawn to the book by it’s WWII story, involving a romance between enemies (much like my soon-to-be-released novel), I was intrigued by the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. As a writer of World War II romance, I find myself in the paradoxical position of spinning a tale of both love and war. I consider myself a peace-loving person. I wouldn’t call myself a pure pacifist though; in the most extreme cases, aggression is sometimes the only response to aggression, when all avenues for peaceful resolution have been exhausted. So why was I moved to write a book immersed in themes hate, as well as of love? And why do I blog about it? Though I deal with the subject matter differently than Mr. Andrews does (after all, he writes “Inspirational” and I write “Romance”), I hope readers will come away from my novel with a similar message. Years ago, when discussing my book with my sister Stephanie (one of my manuscript’s early critiquers) she and I both concluded that its themes were love and forgiveness. My personal journey in writing In the Arms of the Enemy, as well as “World War II…with a German accent,” has revealed an overriding ethic: that even amidst the worst of human experience and inhuman behavior, I refuse to give up hope of redemption – redemption not in a religious sense, but in a moral one.
Forgiveness. This powerful, life-altering phenomenon stirred my heart through The Heart Mender, and the thrilling true story drove my interest. Though this is not a genre I would normally pluck from the bookshelf, I came away moved and enchanted. I loved Mr. Andrews’ characters – real people whose names have been altered – and was satisfied to learn in the third and final section of the book their ultimate fates. Mr. Andrews had the good fortune to actually track down and interview some of them, enabling him to piece together the mystery of how German World War II artifacts, secreted for nearly 60 years, ended up in his back yard on the Gulf coast of the United States. Had it not been for that pesky tree stump, this story would never have been known or told. I encourage you to read it, and dare the cynical among you not to be moved.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Dresden, an epic film made in 2006 for German television, touches on many themes: human frailty, human brutality, kindness, cruelty and indifference. The plot hinges on a love triangle between Anna, a German nurse, her fiancé Alexander and Robert, the British bomber pilot she rescues. Subplots involve her colleague, a Gentile woman trying to protect her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the treacherous diversion of medicine from the hospital Anna’s father directs.
Dresden unfolds in the days leading up to the infamous Allied firebombing of the German city on February 13-14, 1945. Nicknamed “Florence on the Elbe” for its legendary beauty, the city was reduced to ashes in one night, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. Its destruction remains a profound trauma in the German memory of World War II.
My soon-to-be published World War II novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, involves a love triangle, too, and my heroine must choose between two lovers—one her compatriot and the other her enemy. The characters in Dresden face conflicts very similar to those in my novel. When Anna discovers Robert’s identity, she is torn between love and hate. Robert represents to her the most despicable of the enemy, the men who bomb not only legitimate military targets, but women and children as well.
The movie combines familiar elements: a poignant love story, conflicted characters, tortuous plot twists, all set against the cataclysmic destruction of a city. On one level, Dresden plays like the clichéd disaster film. The plotline and the interactions of the protagonists are largely predictable. The principles rush through burning streets and collapsing buildings in search of their loved ones. Most find each other in the end, though not all survive. At times, the storyline stretches believability and pulls a bit too vigorously on our heartstrings. But on the whole, it is effective. The acting and direction are fine and the technical aspects of the production—special effects, costumes, sets, cinematography—are high quality. Careful research is evident in the historical recreation of the events surrounding the bombing. The scenes involving the firestorm are riveting, though they offer only a glimpse of the horror of the actual event.
The film examines the moral paradox of war, of fighting for love of country, and believing, as the principled combatants on both sides do, that it is both honorable and obligatory to kill other human beings who have done nothing to deserve their individual fates. Not only perpetrators of war crimes, but innocents, too, merit punishment. It is frequently expressed by their former foes (we Americans, for instance) that any losses the German people suffered were richly deserved. When Anna learns that the Englishman she has been sheltering is a bomber pilot, she is horrified. In anger and disgust she asks, “What does it feel like to bomb women and children?” to which he responds, somewhat predictably, “Ask the Luftwaffe.” In other words, you bomb my country—I have every right to bomb the hell out of yours.
In the “Making of Dresden” featurette included in the DVD, the filmmakers stress that this is an anti-war film. In recognition of the monumental atrocities committed by Germans during World War II, the current Federal Republic has become a nation of avowed pacifists. This subject is timely as the heated debate about Germany’s participation in the present NATO operation in Afghanistan persists. In fact, Germany does not even call this undertaking a “war”; rather, they consider it a humanitarian mission. The thought of their soldiers intentionally killing other combatants is repugnant to most Germans. Their national conscience has not yet, and perhaps never will, recover from the guilt today’s Germans have inherited from the Nazis.
Beyond the anti-war message, and in addition to the moving love story and dramatic twists and turns, Dresden examines the fate of the city itself. Dresden becomes a protagonist in its own right, and its destruction is almost as painful and poignant as the deaths of the human beings who inhabit it. At the end of the film, actual footage of the recent reconstruction of the city is shown, including the rededication of the famed Frauenkirche, the centerpiece of the city. The British city of Coventry donated a cross to the resurrected church as a symbol of reconciliation. This cross was one of several fashioned from nails recovered among the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by a Luftwaffe blitz in 1940. I was fortunate to see one such cross in Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche during my recent trip to Germany. The ruins of that church are preserved, as a memorial to the devastation of the war. I saw only the outside of the Frauenkirche while in Dresden, but was awed by its rebirth, after having viewed photographs of the shattered remnants that followed the February 1945 bombing.
Dresden painstakingly treads the line between portraying the firebombing as a justified, military objective and depicting it as a gratuitous act of vengeance. The question remains open. Germans today are conflicted over how to view this catastrophe, as well as other tragedies suffered during the war. In the decades since 1945, Germany still struggles with these issues. Do Germans have the right, in light of the crimes committed by the Nazis, the murders of millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents and countless other victims, to acknowledge and mourn their own losses? Twenty-first century Germans are ambivalent.
Dresden is an important and well-made film, which examines these themes in a compelling manner. I recommend it, as I believe Dresden’s story deserves to be told.
Note: The DVD, in German and English with English subtitles, is available here at Amazon.com.